It is not surprising that aides would be “shell-shocked,” as the Daily Beast put it, over President Obama’s horrendous performance at the debate. That no one on the left imagined that he would do so poorly tells us much about the Obama bubble and the president’s distorted self-image.
Push back on the excuse narrative just a bit, and you see how attenuated the rationale must become to preserve Obama's image of the most brilliant man ever to hold the presidency. How can someone supposedly so rhetorically gifted, so smart and so wonkish be stumped, halting and testy? We are told, “Partly lost in the fray was Obama’s history as a good but not necessarily great debater with a style at times nonchalant and diffident.” Such a description attempts to preserves the notion he could do better if he really wanted to. But that’s bizarre, to put it mildly, a confession of arrogance in defense of incompetence.
Truth be told, he gave a rotten convention speech, and his State of the Union addresses have varied from deadly dull ( 2011) to inconsequential (2012). Maybe, he is a one-trick orator, the Meredith Willson of politics. A single speech (with variations thereon) is all he’s got. The “red states-blue states, have hope, and we’re going to reinvent the globe” got him through a 2008 campaign, but it has no place in the repertoire for a sitting president in a reelection campaign.
Moreover, he doesn’t have a good story to tell or a good record to run on. Mitt Romney’s senior economic adviser Glenn Hubbard released a statement on Friday explaining that “even after passing a nearly $1 trillion stimulus and enjoying strong Congressional majorities for two years, President Obama still hasn’t lived up to his promises. Consider this: If the number of people in the jobs force was the same as when President Obama was elected, the unemployment rate would be near 11 percent. . . .Today, 23 million people across the country are struggling to find work, and it’s clear we need a new leader in the White House to turn our economy around.” To that, Obama responds no one could do better? The failing is so great and the excuse so flimsy not even a gifted debater could slip through unbruised.
In other words, a not quick-on-his feet fellow with a halting delivery doesn’t have much to say. No wonder it was a fiasco.
Moreover, he’s never bothered to understand his opponents’ actual arguments, preferring to rest on short distortions of his opponent’s position ($5 trillion tax cut, destroy Medicare, etc.). That is why he had nothing to say in response to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) — the complete un-Obama — when the Budget Committee chairman eviscerated his Obamacare plan:
His condescending look and testy reaction (both at the health-care forum and in the debate) are evidence of his inability to engage his opponents, not the source of his problems.
Maybe he can memorize some more jabs. But unless he is going to spend a couple weeks learning the ins and outs of his own policies as well as his opponent’s and come up with some bigger, bolder ideas it is not likely he’ll be able to measure up to Romney. So far it seems Obama is doubling down on his accusation that Romney is “lying,” especially about the Romney tax plan. He already tried that the first time, and Romney patiently explained that the president had it wrong. So how is insisting that Romney is still not telling the truth going to help Obama? It frankly seems like a recipe for disaster. Obama is so wedded to his own false spin it isn’t clear that he can do real damage to his opponent.
Obama’s rhetorical weakness suggests he is not the great intellect he and his admirers have come to venerate. When confronted with an agile opponent and a factual barrage, he is the veritable deer in the headlights. (Recall during the debate when Romney turned Obama’s laudatory comments about Medicare into a defense of his premium support plan. “And by the way, if the government can be as efficient as the private sector and offer premiums that are as low as the private sector, people will be happy to get traditional Medicare, or they’ll be able to get a private plan.” Boom.)
Obama always believes that he is the smartest person in the room. (“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m gonna think I’m a better political director than my political director.”) The realization that he’s not comes as a shock to some on the left. As for the revelatory moment, conservatives can only shrug and say, “It’s about time.”